When it comes to space and place, in the Universe of Terms, what has grabbed my attention over the past several years is how they ought to be understood in relation to the sacred. Or at least an approximation of what “the sacred” can be taken to mean. I fudge because I find this term, the sacred, problematic, and never more so than in its most famous rendering, by Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The term is tucked without a bump or wrinkle into his larger definition of religion:
A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. (italics in original)
I don’t know any anthropologist who would accept this definition. And quite rightly. But there is some worth in shifting the emphasis to thinking more directly in terms of things set apart and forbidden. Space and place can help with this, as I’ve learned in my research on funerals and what lies literally at their center: mortal remains.
When I started conducting fieldwork on funerals in London, in 2011, one of the things that struck me was the willingness of cemetery and crematorium staff to show me what goes on behind the scenes in the crematorium chapels. In the United Kingdom, where over 75 percent of body dispositions are cremations, the backstage of a chapel is rarely seen by mourners—and rarely desired to be so. In certain parts of London, pockets of Sikh and Hindu communities are exceptions to the norm, as witnessing cremation is a crucial part of making the death good. But for a majority of people the catafalque—a movable platform on which the coffin rests—is the site of farewell.
Some crematorium staff promoted transparency and openness out of conviction; they wanted to encourage a fuller embrace of the ceremonial process in order to dispel what they understood to be the society’s fear of death. For others, it had more to do with a frustration over the stereotypes that marred the profession: modern-day grave robbers, and all that. “You get lots of conspiracy theories,” I was told.
So, yes, when I came around, staff were more than happy to bring me behind the scenes, to make their spaces places by emplotting them with a mix of technologies, processes, and procedures that marked their work and an attendant ethics of care.
Catafalques in crematorium chapels are almost always literal gateways between the public space of the chapel and the workspace of disposition. As a coffin is committed, the catafalque will be drawn over with curtains, or, in a few startling cases, sink into the floor, whereupon the staff will roll the coffin onto a gurney and prepare it for the cremator. This might involve a wait, as even the most modern cremators take about three times as long to cremate the average adult-sized body (ninety minutes) as it does to conduct the preceding funeral. At Green Glade Cemetery and Crematorium, in south London, backlogs are cut down by the use of three cremation chambers for two chapels.
On the first day I visited Green Glade, Les, the man in charge behind the scenes, showed me around. A burly man in his forties with tattoos on his forearms, Les told me that their relatively new cremators, manufactured by a Dutch firm called Facultatieve Technologies, were a real boon to the work. They heated to 850 degrees Celsius and took an hour less than the old ovens. They also have wider entryways: up from the old thirty-three inches to a new standard, forty. People are getting bigger.
Cremators have small, porthole-shaped windows. From a good distance away, I could see the orange glow of a fire in one of them. A few minutes earlier, when the cemetery manager had walked me over from her office to meet Les, the one thing she told me was not to look into the cremators from up close. I asked Les about this and he reinforced her point.
“I try to think of it in terms of, what if it was one of your loved ones?” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes I have to look in,” he continued. “That’s our job.” But it made him uncomfortable. It was intimate, and something of a transgression. There is something about the process of cremation, of the transformation in media res, that depended on privacy for the dignity to remain intact.
Beyond this, though, the work was marked by care but otherwise carried out with a mundane routine. When the green light above one of the chambers went off, signaling the end of the cremation, Les opened it and pulled out the platform. The ashes were rough and chunky. There was even some bone. Les pointed out the remains of a hip. There was also a melted watch. This was picked out and put aside.
Les put on thick leather gloves and pulled out a ten-foot rake. The ashes were methodically raked and funneled into an opening in the tray, from which they fell into a metal cylinder. Les then took them to a small machine, called a cremulator, which, in just about twenty minutes, pulverizes them into the fine ash that is their final form.
On one side of the cremulator there was a series of shelves containing several dozen plastic canisters—temporary urns. These were labeled with the deceased’s name, date of cremation, and, if applicable, the name of the family member who would be collecting them. Several just said “Bury Without Witness,” meaning they would not be collected at all, or seen to further. I would be surprised, Les said, just how many remains met this fate.
Nearby, I spotted two large, plastic trashcans with a flip-up lid. One of them was for the titanium steel some bodies contained—almost always the remnants of a hip replacement surgery. The steel doesn’t melt in the fire, and anyway, it’s quite valuable. When the trashcan gets full, Les arranges for shipment to a specialist recycling facility in the Netherlands. The proceeds are then donated to bereavement charities. The other trashcan was for the small metal bits of coffins, deformed buttons, melted watches, keepsake photo frames, and various unidentifiable wiry things. These just went to the landfill.
Do Les and his many colleagues in Britain’s funeral industry traffic in the sacred? The spatial and emplaced aspects of body disposition don’t easily map onto the Durkheimian model of it, or its flipside, the profane. Yet these are things set apart, and in some sites and moments, forbidden, even if, for those who work on and with the dead, most of the interdictions ought to be dispelled. Elsewhere in his text, Durkheim speaks of everything coming under the canopy of the sacred and profane—of a “bipartite division of the whole universe.” But if that universe is not part of this Universe of Terms, that doesn’t mean we should dispel it altogether.